1: Many people believe that we live in the worst of times and that things continue to get worse.
Nothing could be farther from the truth, Steven Pinker writes in Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress.
How do we know this is true?
In prior RiseWithDrews, we’ve looked at a number of incredible trends: the mind-boggling uptick in prosperity, the dramatic decline in poverty, the increase in longevity, the decline in infant mortality, the near eradication of famine, and dramatic breakthroughs in agriculture.
It doesn’t stop there. This week we will explore the dramatic decline in violence.
2: Starting with homicide.
“Homicide rates are the most reliable indicator of violent crime across different times and places because a corpse is always hard to overlook,” Steven writes, “and rates of homicide correlate with rates of other violent crimes like robbery, assault, and rape.”
Homicide is also a leading cause of death: “With the exception of the world wars, more people are killed in homicides than wars,” he notes.
And the homicide rate has declined significantly over time. When we turn back the clock one thousand years, we learn that homicide rates were 50X greater than they are today.
In 1375, homicide rates in Europe in any given year were often more than 50 per 100,000 people, according to the historical criminologist Manuel Eisner.
What’s the current homicide rate in Western Europe today?
Less than 1 per 100,000.
“In medieval Europe, lords massacred the serfs of their rivals, aristocrats and their retinues fought each other in duels, brigands and highwaymen murdered the victims of their robberies, and ordinary people stabbed each other over insults at the dinner table,” Steven writes.
But then, the march of progress began.
“Western Europeans, starting in the 14th century, began to resolve their disputes in less violent ways,” Steven writes.
German sociologist Norbert Elias credits “the change to the emergence of centralized kingdoms out of the medieval patchwork of baronies and duchies, so that the endemic feuding, brigandage, and warlording were tamed by a ‘king’s peace.'”
Rates fell further in the 19th century with the introduction of criminal justice systems, professional municipal police forces, and a more deliberate court system.
What else happened at this time? The Industrial Revolution. Which led to commerce and capitalism, which brought along currency, contracts, and better roads and vehicles.
“Gentle commerce proliferated,” Steven writes. “People became enmeshed in networks of commercial and occupational obligations laid out in legal and bureaucratic rules.
“Their norms for everyday conduct shifted from a macho culture of honor, in which affronts had to be answered with violence, to a gentlemanly culture of dignity, in which status was won by displays of propriety and self-control.”
3: These trends are not just limited to Europe.
“Whenever a government brings a frontier region under the rule of law and its people become integrated into a commercial society, rates of violence fall,” Seven reports.
Homicide rates in the U.S. are higher than in Europe (currently around 6 per 100,000), but the downward trend has been equally dramatic. Stephen has added to the criminologist Manuel’s data, including colonial New England and the “Wild West.”
In both cases, the homicide rates have declined spectacularly: in New England, from 100 homicides annually per 100,000 people to less than 1, and in the Southwest, from 200 homicides annually per 100,000 to less than 10.
While any homicide is tragic and terrible, the data shows there are far fewer homicides today than in the past.
Reflection: Am I surprised by the dramatic decrease in homicides?
Action: Share this data with friends and family who are convinced we live in the worst of times.